Time to shine light on the government

What others say

Posted: Monday, March 14, 2005

Today launches a weeklong emphasis by newspapers nationwide on freedom of information issues.

The significance is greater than you might think.

"Sunshine Week" is a reminder that government is by the people and for the people, that the best government is transparent —with both open meetings and records.

Under Florida's Sunshine laws, people in Florida have a right of access to government meetings where public issues are debated and decided. In addition, public records laws ensure that the actions of public officials and others can be monitored and followed.

The governed can see for themselves how the government is spending tax dollars, from paying contractors and operating agencies to buying property.

In many respects, public records are the best avenues for determining how well — or how poorly — government serves the public interest. But public records also hold much benefit for consumers in everyday life.

They can empower people with the information to make important life decisions. Some things people can learn through Florida's public records laws include:

Whether a sexual predator or offender lives nearby.

If a licensed day care center or nursing home has a clean record.

How public schools compare test scores and dropout rates.

How much a home is worth and what it sold for in the past.

Whether someone has a criminal record or a bad driver history.

If disciplinary actions have been taken against a doctor, contractor, auto repair center or other licensed people and businesses.

The officers and owners behind a corporation or business name and whether a business has been sued.

Who is giving to state and local candidates and political action committees.

Whether a restaurant has been cited for unhealthy practices.

Floridians from all walks of life count on public records to answer these questions on a regular basis.

This annual recognition of the importance of the public's right to know started in 2002 through the first "Sunshine Sunday" sponsored by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Newspapers throughout the state — including the Times-Union — ran editorials, stories or both emphasizing the value of freedom of information and open government.

Now, the Florida "Sunshine Sunday" has grown beyond one day and become national.

Government records and meetings are open unless closed by law, and there are instances where exemptions are justified — such as relating to personal health information or some government security plans.

But citizens should look at proposals by state lawmakers to exempt or limit access with skepticism.

The government's business is, after all, the people's business.

— The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

March 13

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